LONDON — How do you measure greatness? By two events that lasted less than 30 seconds combined? By one 10-part event that ground on for 25 hours over two days?
About 45 minutes after Usain Bolt of Jamaica won the Olympic track title he thought was necessary to call himself a legend, Ashton Eaton of the U.S. became the latest to win the title that has gained legendary calling in the Olympics and the sport.
Bolt is the reigning world’s greatest athlete, small letters and capital achievement. Eaton is the current World’s Greatest Athlete, capital letters courtesy of a Swedish king 100 years ago.
A specialist and a generalist. World-record holders both. One now has five gold medals in two Olympics. The other one in one.
Bolt, 25, is an athlete for the contemporary world, with its short attention spans and admiration of outsized egos. Twice in a half-hour, he urged reporters to mention his Twitter name, as if 140 characters were enough to convey the dimension he gave himself.
“I am now a living legend,” Bolt said.
Eaton, a year younger, is an athlete for an older, more contemplative and dignified age, one that did not need its entertainment chopped up into nine and 19-second doses, one that would not have been inclined to go along on Bolt’s ego trip.
“If I really felt like the world’s greatest athlete, I would have to get 10 perfect events, and I know that is not possible,” Eaton said. “For me to consider myself the world’s greatest athlete, I would have to amaze myself in every event, but I also don’t want to discredit what King Gustav said to Jim Thorpe.”
The story may be apocryphal, but it is upon apocrypha that legends often are built. The first Olympic decathlon took place in Stockholm in 1912. After Thorpe won it, King Gustav V of Sweden told him, “Sir, you are the World’s Greatest Athlete.” That sobriquet has been applied to all Olympic decathlon champions since.
“By virtue of his winning here, Ashton is the World’s Greatest Athlete,” said one of his predecessors, 1996 Olympic decathlon champion Dan O’Brien. “Bolt is the world’s fastest man. He can have that title.”
Victory in Thursday’s 200 meters made Bolt the first runner to win the 100 and 200 in consecutive Olympics. He did it here by running six races over six days, an aggregate of just 900 meters.
“That is a lot of work for a sprinter,” O’Brien said.
There was no irony in O’Brien’s voice. He said it in a way meant to maximize appreciation of what Bolt had accomplished.
Bolt’s winning time of 19.32 seconds matched the fourth-fastest in history, a list topped by Bolt’s world record 19.19. He had won Sunday’s 100 in 9.63 seconds, a time second only to his world record 9.58.
“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind,” Bolt said Thursday. “After the 100 meters, I was really confident.”
Decathletes have little interest or energy for such flamboyance. They drag themselves through the last event, the 1,500 meters, and then all join in a celebration of having survived the two days.
Bolt finds training for races longer than 200 meters so painful he decries all talk of his moving up to the 400. That is the distance decathletes cover in the fifth event of Day 1.
The sprints are wondrously easy to comprehend. Fastest one to the tree, the corner, around the block or the finish line in a stadium filled with 80,000 people. The appeal of seeing that question answered quickly makes the races pure Hollywood.
“The decathlon is always overshadowed by the glamour events,” O’Brien said.
The decathlon is esoterica, pages from a medieval manuscript. Its winner is determined by a scoring system that seeks a form of relativity in assessing performances in the 10 events but might as well be the theory of relativity to spectators.
Eaton scored 8,869 points, under the world-record 9,039 he amassed at the U.S. Olympic trials in June but 198 more than runner-up Trey Hardee, his U.S. teammate.
“He is the best ever,” Hardee said, referring to Eaton’s decathlon record. “That wasn’t the last time you are going to see 9,000. I think Ashton is going to do it once a year until we get to Rio” — the 2016 Olympics.
Nine thousand or 19-point-something? In this case, as Bolt was so eager to say, there is no doubt. Not in 2012, when two days is from here to eternity, and smaller is necessarily greater.